I know that we cannot declare a debate of this nature “closed” (I won’t close the comments on this post), but I do what to make a final statement (for now) on the “virgo in partu” doctrine, ie. the dogma that (as the Second Vatican Council – the highest authority teaching this doctrine – put it) “the birth of Our Lord…did not diminish His mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.”
We have had two rather lengthy discussions on this matter (here and here), and I have learned a very great deal from the conversation. Joshua asked at one point in the discussion, “David, are you going to treat us to all your favourite conundrums of dogma?” The answer is “yes, very probably”. That’s really what this blog is for. You are all participants in (what some philosophers call) my “extended mind”. That ought to be a scarey thought…
One of my main concerns about the “virgo in partu” doctrine was that it was making a theological claim about an historical event. I could understand the theology – especially within an honour/shame culture such as existed in ancient Palestine and the Greco-Roman world – but I had difficulty with the claim in so far as it could (at least theoretically if not in fact) be known historically. In my original post about the doctrine I stated like this:
The question about whether or not Mary experienced pain or the breaking of her hymen in giving birth to Jesus seems to me to be a conclusion primarily based on theological ideas (and, in respect to the hymen question, cultural ideas). I guess that, if Mary experienced no pain in giving birth to Jesus, this is something that could have been known by the early Christian community, but it boggles the mind how anyone could have known for certain one way or another whether her hymen was ruptured.
I simply had difficulty imagining such “knowledge” being passed to the Apostle and down to the Church as part of the deposit of faith about the “historical Mary”. But as Shakespeare had his character say: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” History has a way of throwing up things that we could never imagine. And so I am very grateful to Chris Jones, who eventually directed us to this story from the legendary account of the Proto-Evangelium of St James:
[Mary] said to her [the midwife]: ‘Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin hath brought forth—a thing which her nature admits not of.’ Then said Salome: ‘As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.’ And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: ‘Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee.’ And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: ‘Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.’ (Protevangelion vv 19-20)
Now, of course, as Chris himself pointed out,
this is not “documentary evidence” of our Lady’s virginity in partu; but it is certainly evidence of the exactly how “virgin birth” was understood by those who lived in the time and culture in which our Lord was born. And it reflects what the Church’s oral tradition was, and what issues that tradition was concerned with, at a time a century or less from the Resurrection.
Chris is quite right. Like the reference to sacrifice for the sins of the departed in Maccabees (also regarded by some Christians as a non-canonical work), it is enough to show a belief and an attitude that existed in the early stage of the Tradition. It shows that the early Christians not only knew the doctrine “virgo in partu”, but were aware of the kind of claim that they were making, ie. a claim about a real historical person and a real historical event. Interestingly, the story seems to be provided in the Proto-Evangelium precisely because “no small controversy” had arisen about Mary’s status as a “virgin”. Now of course, it is quite possible that the author of the Proto-Evangelium invented this story – the Church in no way requires us to accept this document as infallible scripture or factual history. That’s not my concern right now. The fact is that it demonstrates how Mary’s “in partu” virginity could have been known and that the idea meant then what it has always meant in the teaching of the Church since.
For me, for now, that is sufficient.
UPDATE: But not, it seems for you guys…
Two objections have arisen in the Combox so far, and I wish to deal with these up front.
1) The second, and least serious, is the question about the “importance” of the “virgo in partu” doctrine. Stephen K raised the question, and Tony is pressing it. My first reaction is to say “No, it isn’t important in the hierarchy of Truths” – it isn’t the “article on which the Church stands or falls”, as the Lutherans would say. But then I pause for a bit and think: who am I to say how important it is? Chesterton once used the example of a man who comes across a closed gate with the sign on it which says “please close the gate”. If I can’t see any stock in the paddock, can I judge that the gate can be left open? There may be ramifications of this doctrine that I am not currently aware of, but which may become crucial one day.
2) The more serious charge is expressed by Marcel, Joshua, Louise, and Terra: viz. my audacity and disrespect for Our Lady in discussing “a subject so delicate and so sacred” in the first place, which I should have simply have allowed to remain “shroud[ed]” in “mystery”.
This I take very seriously. I think that while it shows an admirable respect for and devotion to Our Lady, as theological method it verges upon gnosticism, if not doceticism. It is precisely the nature of our faith that it makes certain claims which are indeed “mysterious”, but precisely so because they are said to be “real”. The best example is that of the Sacrament of the Altar. The Sacrament is shrouded in mystery, but that hasn’t stopped our theologians trying to work out and explain how it could be “real”. Lutherans say we have gone to far in using Aristotelian terms like “transubstantiation”, but we use such terms because we are convinced of the reality of the mystery, and hence believe that it must be able to be approached in terms of some kind of philosophy of reality.
The same goes for the doctrine, for eg., of the Assumption. Yes, a great mystery, but one which is grounded in the belief that Mary really was assumed body and soul into heaven. No one says “This is a great mystery, don’t enquire too much about whether it was historical or not.”
But when it comes to the “virgo in partu” doctrine, just because of the subject matter, we are supposed to step back and say “Yes, that’s true, but don’t investigate too closely.” Sorry, I’m not buying that. If it is true, it is real, and if it is real, it can and should be discussed as a way of furthering our understanding of the faith which we confess.